Broadleaf Plants: What They Are, Why You Should Know

They're Not Exactly the Same as "Deciduous" Plants

Japanese Red Maple, England
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Broadleaf plants (also written as "broad-leaved") are those with leaves that have a flat, relatively broad surface. This surface is often marked with a network of prominent veins. These botanical characteristics distinguish them from plants with needle-like, awl-like, scale-like, or blade-like leaves. The distinction allows us to group together plants that share the characteristic, for purposes of categorization.

One common use for the word in landscaping and gardening is to refer to garden shrubs and trees that have "typical" leaves, rather than those with leaves shaped like needles, etc. Note that "broadleaf" and "evergreen" aren't necessarily opposites: Evergreen plants such as azaleas (Rhododendron), as well as mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia), are broadleaf shrubs, despite sharing the "evergreen" classification with needle-bearing shrubs such as yew (Taxus). Meanwhile, other evergreen shrubs have awl-like foliage; these include junipers (Juniperus). Still others have scale-like foliage; these include arborvitae (Thuja). 

Examples of Trees and Shrubs That Are Broad-Leaved

Some of the following examples are plants with which you have probably been familiar since childhood. They include the deciduous trees whose fall foliage we so eagerly await every autumn:

Broadleaf Plants, Deciduous Plants, and Why Leaves Change Color in Fall

Those deciduous, broadleaf trees and shrubs have developed a strategy whereby they enjoy the best of both worlds. During the warm-weather months, the relatively large surface area of their leaves makes them powerful photosynthesis machines, soaking up as much sunshine as possible. Then, when temperatures fall, they shed their leaves and go dormant. It is a survival mechanism: The large surface area that is such an advantage for the leaves during the warm weather would become a disadvantage during the cold weather.

This shedding of the leaves is preceded by the glorious fall foliage stage. We owe the changing leaf color in fall to a subtraction, not to an addition. The tree seals off the leaves from their stems, shutting off their water supply. Thus deprived of water, the leaves cease to make chlorophyll. It is the chlorophyll that had made the leaves appear green all summer: The chlorophyll was masking other colors in the leaves. So, in a sense, the breathtaking fall foliage season is the result of an unmasking, in which the leaves' true colors are revealed.

"Deciduous" and "broadleaf" are not, however, synonymous in the world of trees. The live oak (Quercus virginiana) is an example of a broadleaf tree that is evergreen, not deciduous. But this exception should not surprise us since the live oak is a tree of the American South, where winters are relatively mild.

Why Knowing This Definition Is Useful: Grassy vs. Broadleaf Weeds

"Broadleaf" is not used only to refer to trees and shrubs. The term is also often applied to common lawn weeds fitting that description, to separate them from other weeds for purposes of controlling them through the use of herbicidal sprays. Many beginners fail to realize that how you battle a weed in your lawn very much depends on whether it is broad-leaved or not. 

Another group of weeds, the so-called "grassy" weeds, have blade-like leaves and are also frequently found in lawns. Because such weeds are botanically similar to the "good" grass (the lawn grass that you wish to keep), you must use special herbicides on them. Otherwise, you would kill your lawn grass in the process.

An example of a grassy weed is crabgrass (Digitaria), the bane of all lawn enthusiasts. Homeowners spend countless hours researching and using the best crabgrass killers annually. Some also regard tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea) as one of the grassy weeds.

You need to use an entirely different type of herbicide to kill broadleaf weeds. When you are at a home improvement store, look for herbicidal products that specifically say (on their packaging) that they are meant for use on broadleaf weeds. Examples of broadleaf weeds commonly found in lawns include:

From Botany to Landscape Design

Although broadleaf plants are distinguished from, say, needle-bearing evergreens by the breadth of their leaves, it is hardly the case that all broadleaf plants have particularly large leaves (it does not take much to surpass a skinny pine needle in breadth). For example, boxwood shrubs (Buxus) are broad-leaved, but their leaves are tiny compared to the leaves of big-leaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla). Willows (Salix) are considered broad-leaved yet bear narrow leaves. So although botanists know exactly what they are talking about when they discuss "broadleaf" plants with each other, the term is not as descriptive as a beginner might like it to be.

The difference in leaf size between various broadleaf plants leads to the entirely separate discussion of plant texture. By placing a plant with broader leaves (foliage with a coarser texture) next to one with narrower leaves (foliage with a finer texture), we can create interesting contrasts in the landscape. This is a matter of landscape design, not of botany.